Speak the Music: Robert Mann and the Mysteries of Chamber Music

What’s the deal with string quartets? I’ll be the first one to admit I’m a philistine, but I’m smart enough to know it’d take a book to answer that question.

speakthemusic_splashI ask it, though, because Allan Miller’s Speak the Music is the fourth film I’ve seen in a short period of time about string quartets. I’ll take advice from the film’s subtitle above and just let the answer to my question remain a ‘mystery.’

Robert Mann is a violinist. He was born in 1920. As I watched Miller’s hour-long profile of Mann’s life and times I kept thinking about From Mao to Mozart which is one of those films that impressed me for life.

There are too many ‘Allan Millers’ in IMDB, so I had to search around and finally found his site.

Ah! Miller won an Oscar for From Mao to Mozart, his film of Isaac Stern’s tour of the then just-opened China. Miller has an impressive filmography of documentary films about music.

Robert Mann didn’t practice his violin—he preferred reading science fiction. And when he did perform, he had no idea what he was doing—specifically what impact he was having on his listeners. He learned quickly, though, that he was moving them emotionally, that he was infusing emotion into his playing.

He also knew he didn’t have the talent to be a great solo violinist, and that potentially sad insight birthed the world’s boon. Mann devoted his life to string quartets.

Mann’s focus is on ensuring that players are playing the emotion of, and the story of the music. This point is made frequently throughout the film.

Mann was a founding member of, and first violinist in the Julliard String Quartet for 52 years. He is a legend in that world having influenced the evolution of string quartet performance, having influenced the formation of quartets, and mentoring their development.

Miller interviews Mann, many in the music world speaking of his work, and Mann’s family. He also presents Mann at work coaching string quartets. And, of course, there’s plenty of music.

I surrender, I’m off to listen to some string quartets.


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